After failing to reach an agreement with management over a wage increase, employees at Slovak Railways (ŽSR) are planning a mid-March nationwide strike that would stop all train transport in the country. The ŽSR union is demanding a 10% increase in salaries to match Slovakia's 1999 inflation rate of 11%, while ŽSR management has offered a mere 2.4% raise, citing a lack of funds.
If the strike were called - a possibility that ŽSR management considers quite likely - both passenger and freight transport would come to a halt for the first time in Slovak history, and the rail company would lose 60 million Slovak crowns ($1.4 million) a day. Union officials have not said how long the strike might last.
Although such a strike would cause huge inconveniences for commuters and even more headaches for companies, the governmnet hasn't yet stepped in to mediate discussions between ŽSR and the railway union."We support ŽSR management and are consulting with them in the steps they are taking," said Naďa Ondrišová, a Transport Ministry spokesperson. "However, we would only intervene in mutual discussions if there was a real danger of a strike."
The union has been threatening a strike since the end of last year, when ŽSR management realised that the money the company had been allocated from the state budget for 2000 was not enough to increase wages. Management had promised a 10% increase before the state budged was approved at the end of December last year.
According to Slovak laws, at least 50% of company's employees must sign a petition to launch a strike. The railway union, which launched its petition on February 20, expects to have a sufficient number of signatures in one week.
"We cannot accept the proposal of ŽSR management for a 2.4% salary increase, because we based our demands on the level of inflation and that's why we're asking for a 10% wage increase," said Vladimír Pikna, vice-chairman of the railway union strike committee. According to Pikna, ŽSR has financial reserves which could be used to increase employee wages. "This is the main aim of the strike, and we feel that we will get it," Pikna said.
However, with a preliminary loss of 5.2 billion crowns for 1999, ŽSR management is desperately short of cash, and will get no richer in the coming year. "Our loss for this year is expected to be about 2.8 billion crowns, so what reserves are they (the union) talking about?" asked ŽSR spokesman Miloš Čikovský.
According to Čikovský, ŽSR will take a loan this year from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development which will be used to buy new trains and renovate old boxcars and tracks." If this is the reserve the unions are talking about, then they should know that we [ŽSR] cannot use this money to increase the salaries of our employees because the loan serves as direct investment and no bank would give money to a company if it knew that the money would be used to increase the wages of the company's employees," Čikovský said.
The reluctance of either side to compromise has for the moment ended discussions on wage increases. "At this point we don't want to discuss with unions the figures they have been proposing. We will do everyting to avert the strike, but at the same we are preparing for it because if it happens our losses will be huge," Čikovský said.
ŽSR is not the only potential loser in any strike; big companies like eastern Slovak steel-maker VSŽ, where ŽSR handles 95% of their traffic, also stand to take a hit. "We've already had a negative experience with the Hungarian Railway strike [in early February]," said VSŽ spokesman Jozef Marko. "We're not even talking about what a future strike would do to ŽSR, when 30.5% of their total transport is accounted for by us [VSŽ]."
The average monthly wage of a ŽSR employee, excluding management, is 7,560 crowns ($180), 3,000 crowns less than the national average. The company employs about 50,000 people, which makes it the largest employer in the country.